Taboo busting cancer charity ad busted by ad watchdog

girl v cancer 2A poster campaign by charity Girl vs Cancer, designed to make sex after cancer “a less taboo part of treatment and recovery” has been battered by the Advertising Standards Authority for using “offensive” language and imagery in a medium which could be seen by children.

The poster, created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, was part of a wider campaign that addressed sex, pleasure and intimacy for people living with or beyond cancer.

One of the standout ads of last year, it received major coverage in the advertising and marketing press, especially in Campaign magazine, which ran a “behind the scenes” article, interviewing both agency and client.

At the time, the charity’s founder Lauren Mahon said: “Girl vs Cancer heroes the human being attached to the diagnosis and shines a light on the variety of ways that a cancer diagnosis affects lives. BBH’s ‘straight to it’ approach to this topic is certainly going to put it on the agenda and help to make it a less taboo part of cancer treatment and recovery.”

The poster execution, which ran in Finsbury Park, Hackney and Tower Gateway, featured a nude close-up of women who have experienced cancer, along with the line: “Cancer won’t be the last thing that f*cks me.”

But two members of the public complained to the ASA, challenging whether the ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence; and inappropriate for display in an untargeted medium.

In its defence, Girl vs Cancer said the poster had intended to represent the real-life experience of women regarding sex and cancer, and the emotions they had experienced.

It accepted that this might have made some people feel uncomfortable, but did not believe the ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence. The charity said that the imagery in the ad had been carefully crafted so that both of the model’s breasts had been covered, and no other body parts beyond her main torso were visible.

Girl vs Cancer insisted it took matters of social responsibility seriously and believed raising awareness of the issues the ad addressed showed a wider sense of societal responsibility, by representing the views and experiences of an under-represented section of society.

It did not believe the language or images used in the ad had been gratuitous, but rather were relevant to the lived experiences and issues faced by many women with cancer, arguing that the use of the word “fuck” was in keeping with and necessary for the campaign message and creative execution.

Media owner Build Hollywood said the ad had been removed by the time it was made aware of the complaint. It thought the ad touched on an important topic which was too often perceived to be a taboo subject, and deserved to be highlighted and talked about openly.

However, the ASA was having none of it. While the watchdog acknowledged the use of an asterisk obscured the letter “u” in “fuck”, as BrewDog has discovered to its cost, the watchdog takes a dim view of such language.

The watchdog ruled that, combined with the imagery, viewers were likely to interpret the ad as depicting sexual behaviour, and the word “fuck” should not be used or alluded to in advertising.

Concluding the ad was likely to cause serious and widespread offence and was inappropriate for display in an untargeted medium, the ASA banned the activity and warned the charity over future campaigns.

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